A Long Way From Paume
16/08/17: An intrepid band of Eton Fives tourists made their way to France last weekend to take part in the 2017 World Cup of Paume Artignoscaise, a traditional handball game played for centuries in the Provencal village of Artignosc-sur-Verdon up against the wall of the village church.
The story began about seven years ago with North Oxford club player Martin Fiennes, who stumbled across people playing the game while cycling through the village on holiday. He took a short video, which he showed to North Oxford captain Gareth Hoskins upon his return.
Fast forward six and a half years and a typical post-tournament discussion in the Golden Curry in Eton between Gareth, Seb Cooley and Karen Hird, which somehow sparked off a memory of this video. A small amount of research quickly revealed that a) Artignosc was only 90 minutes or so away from Seb's house in France and b) they held a World Cup tournament every August. No second invitation was required - just a quick email exchange with the AIPA, the association that was formed a few years ago to safeguard the game and which runs the tournament to confirm that we would be welcome (we were, although we were also informed in no uncertain terms that we would "get our asses kicked") and the die was cast. We were also informed that "sharing a drink" was a prerequisite, our first inkling that this was very definitely going to be a proper Fives tournament.
A few months later and the first ever Paume Artignoscaise Team GB was on the Eurostar and TGV and heading to Artignosc. Gareth Hoskins, Tom Hoskins, Karen Hird, Mandie Barnes and Ralph Morgan were joined there by Seb Cooley and Nick Shaw and wife Michele, holidaying nearby with Michele's family. Our first couple of days were spent exploring the beautiful region, including some spectacular kayaking down the Verdon river, and taking part in our first practice sessions to familiarise ourselves with the game of paume itself.
Tennis balls are now used instead of the traditional leather and wood balls, but otherwise the game has been played pretty much unchanged for centuries. A lot of the terminology is in Occitan rather than French, providing a further challenge to l'équipe britannique, but we quickly got to grips with the basics. The game is played in pairs, with one player playing on the left and one on the right. As in Fives, the ball is allowed to bounce once before being hit and must be hit with the hand onto the church wall above a marked line. The wall has a pleasing variety of hazards to make an Eton Fives player feel at home - the door, the door frame, some uneven bits of wall and a drainpipe and postbox all provide opportunities to make the ball rebound in unusual directions. The village square is the court - much wider than an Eton Fives court - with the sides marked out by tape and the back delineated by the natural obstacles of trees, benches, spectators and parked cars. Games are usually played up to 15, and the side who wins the point serves the next point, although unlike Fives you score points whether serving or receiving if you win a rally. Just like Eton Fives, good sportsmanship is crucial: paume retains two features we thought were unique to Fives in that there is no umpire and the players decide what is in or out, up or down and the serve is just a means of getting the ball in play - it has to be "fairplay" and will be rejected if it is deemed too difficult.
Saturday saw the start of the tournament itself. The top seven pairs were seeded out until the tournament proper on Sunday afternoon, leaving the first part of the weekend devoted to the qualification pools. There were nine groups of four or five pairs with the top pair from each group going on into the knockout stages and joining the seeded pairs. Evidently, with 40+ pairs and only one court there was a fair amount of waiting between games, which were short and played up to 7. It didn't matter: there was a large crowd, with the local people warm and welcoming and curious about Eton Fives and what we were doing there. The weather was glorious, the music was playing, the matches were all being commentated on over a loudpseaker, the bar round the corner was open, the Team GB t-shirts became hot property and everyone was having a wonderful time.
When the British players did take to the court, it quickly became clear that we were very much a match for the vast majority of the pairs in the qualifying rounds. Mandie Barnes was playing with a local in the ladies only pool and they cruised through the day unbeaten. Seb Cooley and Nick Shaw cunningly gave little away by just doing enough to get through without showing their full hand and a full house of GB qualifiers was only prevented by Karen Hird & Ralph Morgan and Gareth & Tom Hoskins being drawn in the same group. Gareth & Tom got the early advantage by winning the GB derby - Tom impressing the commentator with his skills and ability to hit the postbox - but it was Karen & Ralph who had the last laugh by going through on points difference as Hoskins père et fils lost their last group match 7-6 on Sunday morning to miss out on qualification by a single point.
Saturday night had to be negotiated first, before the qualifiers finished on Sunday morning, and with Nigel Cox and Jeff Green joining the party, the square was quickly covered in trestle tables and chairs and a fabulous meal served to 300 people, as the pastis and wine flowed and the village brass band played. Team GB retired to the team campsite at around midnight, but the eating, drinking and dancing went on long into the night.
Things started to hot up on Sunday afternoon, as the big boys prepared to make their entrance and the knockout stages began. First up was a corker of a match which saw one of the tournament favourites, Gaspard & Tom, forced to dig deep to see off the challenge of a strong pair of pelota players from Nice. Karen & Ralph were next up and performed creditably but quickly met their match and Mandie and her new partner were gently seen off by the President of the Association and his experienced partner.
Last up in the last sixteen were Seb & Nick, unluckily drawn against local heroes Fabien & Mathias, the defending world champions. "Ah, le massacre des anglais commence..." as the village elder seated to my right said to me, nodding sagely as the French pair took to the court at the start of the match. It is no exaggeration to say that the next 30 minutes or so produced sporting theatre up there with anything I have ever seen. The defending champs were not at their best, coming into the tournament under a slight injury cloud, but were still formidable opponents. In front of an enthralled crowd of a couple of hundred people, Seb and Nick immediately began to show what they could do, first pushing their opponents deep, then short or wide and firing the ball in at the hazards at every opportunity. Seb and Nick's superior speed and retrieving ability began to tell and it wasn't long before the whole crowd realised that an upset was possibly on the cards. Fabien & Mathias, desperate to defend their title and possibly even more importantly the honour of the village, threw everything they had at the British pair, but Seb & Nick held firm and won 16-14 (15 to win, but a 2 point lead required).
The watching support team were wondering whether a fast car round the corner with the motor running was going to be required, but the response was the complete opposite. Raucous cheering, huge acclaim, and backslapping and handshakes not only for Seb & Nick but for anyone in the immediate vicinity in a Team GB shirt were the order of the day and a walk around the crowd shortly afterwards produced the almost unanimous response that it had been the best and most exciting game of paume any of them had ever seen.
The quarter-finals soon followed. Clearly there was only one match that the crowd were interested in as Seb & Nick took to the court again to take on a younger but fitter local pair. Cries of "Allez les bleus" and even a burst of the "Marseillaise" rang out around the court as the crowd numbers swelled, with everyone wanting to see if the Brits could do it again. The initial signs were good - Nick & Seb continued to impose their accurate and fast style on the French pair, causing cries of frustration as they performed spectacular recovery shots and hit the hazards repeatedly. At 10-5 up, it looked promising for Seb & Nick, but the French pair responded superbly; determined not to let these upstart foreigners make the semi-finals, they found an extra gear, hitting hard and wide to stretch Seb & Nick, who held on and got to match point first at 14-13. They couldn't take it, however, and Rémi & Arthur took hold of the next couple of points to win 16-14 and put an end to the Team GB challenge amid further wild applause, pitch invasions, celebrations and acclamation for both pairs. Truly memorable scenes.
It was going to be hard to top that for the rest of the competition, but they managed it. Gaspard - a multiple previous champion - was a man on a mission this year after the tragic death in 2016 in a climbing accident of his former partner Mickael François at the age of 23. With a paume player tattoo on his arm in memory of his friend, Gaspard and his new partner Tom made it through to the final, which was played up to 21. Always behind, at 15-18 down they found something from somewhere to draw level at 20-20 and then take the next two points, winning the title 22-20 in emotional scenes, with Mickael's family all watching and joining in the poignant celebrations as the final point was won. A wonderful end to a wonderful weekend.